Verdict: Great world, mediocre writing.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Published by Orbit, February 6th 2020
I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:
1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential – the cops can never make me talk.
3. I don’t work for humans.
It’s nothing personal – I’m human myself. But after what happened, Humans don’t need my help. Not like every other creature who had the magic ripped out of them when the Coda came…
I just want one real case. One chance to do something good.
Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.
The Last Smile in Sunder City is a brilliantly voiced fantasy for fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Rotherweird or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and the debut novel from actor Luke Arnold – known for his lead role in Black Sails!
I should have loved this. The world Luke Arnold created here (post-magic, well-thought-out, imaginative) is absolutely brilliant. I adore stories that deal with the fall-out of an event that fundamentally alters the laws of the physical world (see N. K. Jemisin’s books and Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy for excellent examples) and this book does this incredibly – on a world-building level. I got the impression that Arnold’s imagination is endless and the way in which he thought out how this sudden disappearence of magic would influence different magical races worked really well for me. I also really like mysteries set in an urban fantasy kind of epic fantasy world. Sunder City is a brilliantly done fantasy city, with flavours of a darker Ankh-Morpork. But there were two big kinds of problems I had with this book – one that I think is a problem with the book itself and one which I have to admit has more to do with my own reading tastes.
First for the more “objective” criticism I had: I found the writing clumsy. This showed itself mostly in a pacing that was, frankly, abysmal. The story moved in fits and bursts to suddenly coming to an absolute standstill, with the backstory and the world-building integrated in heavy, heavy info-dumps. While it did not bother me as much as it could have if the word hadn’t been as fascinating, it led to the book feeling much longer than it actually was. The writing is also clumsy on a sentence-by-sentence level and filled with odd descriptions that took me out of my reading flow (examples: “My boots sucked up mud like hungry dogs in a pit of peanut-butter…”, “Thick smoke tunneled through my nose like an escaped prisoner…” or my personal favourite “The future of […] looked darker than a blackbird’s shadow at midnight”).
But ultimately my main issue with this book came down to the main character: Fetch Philipps is everything that annoys me with male protagonists in noir type stories. He is a guilt-ridden, alcoholic, direction-less, and unpleasant private investigator who is not snarky or intelligent enough to be interesting. He is also weirdly indistinct as a main character – he reads super young in the flashbacks and middle aged in present time, he reacts more to what is going on than being a more active player, his motivations are deeply selfish until they suddenly aren’t, and his narration never became a distinct voice for me (and additionally, I found it fairly male gaze-y). I admit that this has a lot more to do with my own reading tastes but he really did rub me the wrong way. He is also, and this is a petty issue, disgusting – there were a few scenes where he behaves in a weirdly disgusting way in order to intimidate (?) people (like when he downs the drink the bartender he is questioning spit in or when he drinks from an open bottle although other people informed him there were flies swimming in there).
Content warning: trauma, loss of a loved one, alcoholism, substance abuse
I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced copy and are subject to change.